Prospering in Spite of Peace (Acts 9:31)

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In our previous study, we considered the contents of Acts 9:19b-31 under the theme of “the man who as sure that he was saved.” We saw six truths that Saul embraced, practiced as exemplified as a convert of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our final consideration in that study was of v. 31, where we learned that Paul, along with the church at Jerusalem, learned that no disciple is indispensable to the Lord—even one like Saul of Tarsus, the great apostle Paul. We were reminded that even though God uses means, He at the same time is not bound to any means. As our Saviour said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). They learned this in the context of Saul being forced to leave town.

When Saul joined the church at Jerusalem things began to heat up, not only for him, but also for the rest of the church. One wonders how this would have been handled by some of the congregation. Calvin, no stranger to controversy or to conflict, even to the point of persecution, wrote, “For as we are too dainty and too much besotted with love of our own rest, so we be also sometimes angry with the best and most excellent servants of Christ, if we think that through their vehemence the wicked are pricked forward to do hurt; and by this means we do injury to the Spirit of God, whose force and speech kindleth all that flame.”1

In other words, sometimes those whom God sends our way are so committed to Christ that trouble follows, and we should not complain lest we find ourselves offending the Spirit of God. Rather we should support those who are in the thick of things and be grateful for the privilege to be yoked with them. This would seem to have been how the church in Jerusalem eventually responded to the troubles that followed Paul. It reminds me of a true report that I read last year of an incident in Pennsylvania.

A man’s dog was barking incessantly and as the owner opened his front door to check on what was happening the dog came sprinting in the house—followed by a big black bear! Talk about an unwelcome guest!

Perhaps some in the church felt that way about Saul. The text tells us that there was much unpleasantness that surrounded the visit of Saul.

Saul’s conversion was both famous (amongst believers) and infamous (amongst his former friends, turned enemies). Saul the persecutor became Saul the persecuted. And those connected to him experienced a degree of collateral damage.

After a while, it seems that there was corporate agreement that it was a good time for Saul to visit his hometown! And so the Jerusalem saints helped him pack for Tarsus. Once he was out of town, the church experienced a break from trouble. The churches in Judea, Galilee and Samaria experienced peace. The black bear was gone, with the hope perhaps that things would get better.

Saul would remain in Tarsus for perhaps 18 months to three years—until Barnabas sought him out to help with disciple-making in Antioch of Syria. During his time in Tarsus, no doubt, he evangelised and perhaps even won his family members and friends to Christ.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, according to v. 31, things had calmed down. The churches in the entire region had peace.

Let’s be honest: Peace is a wonderful experience. We all enjoy times of tranquillity and reprieve from troubles. It is wonderful when all the bills are paid with some money left in the bank at the end of the month. It is wonderful to have harmony in the home when husband and wife, children and siblings get along. It is wonderful when the household is healthy and when the babies sleep through the night. It is wonderful when you have fought the battles for the salvation of your children and they are clearly in the fold. It is wonderful when the rest of retirement is no longer a future plan but rather a present reality. It is wonderful when friendships are developing and friction has been replaced with fellowship. It is wonderful when there is peace in a church and widespread buy-in to the vision of the leadership. In fact, it is wonderful when the leadership itself is united in its vision. It is wonderful when churches can meet to worship and to serve without fear of reprisal from the authorities or fear of persecution from the community.

This is pretty much where BBC finds herself. And it seems to be precisely what the Jerusalem church experienced once Paul had returned to Tarsus.

But there is another important consideration in times of peace: How do we handle our stewardship of such pleasant circumstances? Do we persevere in spite of the prosperity, or do we slide back?

Note how these believers responded. In the midst of the peace they “were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (v. 31). It is significant that while the church experienced this reprieve from persecution they used the opportunity for much good. This is remarkable, for sadly it is not always the case.

Oftentimes it is when we are in such circumstantial bliss that we fail to experience these very blessings. And the reason is because we can be distracted from our pursuit of God by this very real blessing from God. Sadly, as wonderful as peace is, it can also become the very environment in which spiritual failure occurs.

Is it not true in your experience that, often, when all is well—for example, health is restored, relationships are reconciled, retirement kicks in or employment is secured—you can be tempted to become spiritually slothful? And so rather than using the relative calmness as a means to further seek the Lord you may find yourself seeking the things of this world.

Calvin comments on this,

Though the churches had peace, yet they were not drunken with delights and earthly joy, but, trusting to God’s help, they were more emboldened to glorify God. . . . Therefore, let us learn not to abuse external peace in banqueting and idleness; but the more rest we have given us from our enemies, to encourage ourselves to go forward in godliness whilst we may. And if at any time the Lord let loose the bridle to the wicked to trouble us, let the inward consolation of the Spirit be sufficient for us. Finally, as well in peace as in war, let us always joyfully go forward toward him who hath a reward for us.2

In this study, I desire to unpack this verse for the purpose of exhorting us to make the most of the peace that God gives to us in various contexts. I desire to help us to be good and faithful stewards of the circumstantial peace in which God at times (and for many of us, most of the times) places us.

So let us consider this one verse in the context of the question, when all is well circumstantially, does all remain well with your soul?

Circumstantial Peace

The term “peace” can refer to a cessation of hostilities or to a general sense well-being. Here it probably refers to the former. Once Saul left, the church was left alone and thereby enabled to carry on its ministry. It would seem that the prayer of 1 Timothy 2:1-7 was being answered in this church. But, as we will see, it was important for the Jerusalem disciples, as it is for us, to realise and prepare for the reality that circumstances might change.

Let me use this opportunity to encourage us to pray for a change in circumstances and to believe God to do so. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1). There is nothing wrong with such a request. At issue is how we respond to the peace.

The Scriptures do not discourage us from desiring circumstantial peace, but they also want us, if we get it, to be good stewards of it. In the remainder of the message we look at how the early church responded to such peace.

Constructive Peace

In their time of peace, these disciples were “edified.” That is, they were built up in the faith. They were involved in building up one another, and Jesus was building their church (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16). They faithfully built the temple of God.

We should use opportunities of peace to get our eyes off ourselves and onto others. Use peace as an opportunity to build up others. After all, times of peace are the best times to edify others.

For example, assume that you are an older parent and that your children have been raised to follow the Lord. What do you do in such a circumstance of peace? Do you utilise opportunities to help the next generation, or do you simply sit back and enjoy the peace?

As another example, assume that your marriage is sound and life is therefore free from turbulence. Do you help others in building up their marriages, or do you just sit back and enjoy what you have by God’s grace?

Or how do you respond when God has granted you victory over a particular sin with which you have been struggling? Do you bask in the joy or reach out to help someone else to be delivered?

The Bible gives us examples of those who were not constructive when they experienced peace. Consider, for example, the great victory that God gave Elijah in 1 Kings 18. And yet in chapter 19 we find him sulking and asking God to take his life. When God gave Uzziah peace, he allowed his heart to be lifted with pride and God’s hand of chastening came upon him (2 Chronicles 26). David was at rest in his home when he saw Bathsheba and fell into sin (2 Samuel 11). Times of peace often tempt us in great ways.

Though this church did experience the blessing of peace at this point in history, it would not remain constant. Their circumstances would soon change for the worse. Later on, persecution would return and, in fact, intensify. The Olivet Discourse gives us some insight into the intensity of the persecution that those early Jerusalem saints would face just prior to the fall of Jerusalem. The epistles likewise suggest a time of suffering for the Jerusalem believers, so much so that other churches, under Paul’s direction, took an offering to assist the Jerusalem church.

We too need to realize that today’s prosperity may become tomorrow’s calamity. Therefore, while enjoying the blessings of peace, let us be careful to utilise the opportunity to prepare for a downturn.

I recall reading a book about the US Navy Seals. The author, an ex-Seal himself, said, “The more you sweat in peace-time the less you bleed in war.” That is an important and relevant principle for the church.

When there is a lull in the fight (which, let’s be frank, is somewhat rare), we should use the ceasefire to rearm. We should utilise such opportunities to learn the Word because, in the heat of battle, we may not have the time. We should use such opportunities to pray, for conflict may give us little reprieve to do so. We should build relationships so that we will have helpers on the battlefield.

I think you get the point. Thank God for the ceasefire, but this will not remain indefinitely. Prepare for war. Work up a sweat in the peace and you will then be able to persevere in the conflict.

Circumspectful Peace

As they were edified, these believers were “walking in the fear of the Lord.” This is a wonderful thing to pursue. Oh, that this would mark us!

The word translated “walking” speaks of conduct. In saying that these believers conducted themselves “in the fear of the Lord,” Luke is suggesting that they lived life Coram Deo, before the face of God. That is, they lived lives marked by reverence, which means that they pursued God and His holiness. In the words of Matthew 6:33, they sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Their peace did not dilute their pursuit.

I think it is often the case that, when we are at peace in our circumstances, we are tempted to rest from our pursuit. Consider Solomon, who penned most of the great proverbs that we have in Scripture, yet who seems to have paid little attention to those Proverbs himself.

Think about times of good health. Is it not easy to forget God at such times? When we are ill we pray and spend time reflecting upon God’s power and goodness, but this is not always the case when we experience good health. We need to be deliberate about living Coram Deo in times of good health.

We might face similar temptations in times of financial well-being. When we have little material pressure, the temptation is to forget the one who has blessed us. Because we don’t tangibly feel our need we can become self-sufficient. Deuteronomy 6:1-12 served as a warning to the Israelites not to forget God when He brought them safely to the Promised Land. As we well know, we face the same temptations that they faced when they forgot God, and so we must be on our guard. Perhaps our deliberate prayer should echo that of Proverbs 30:

Remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, “Who is the LORD?” Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.

(Proverbs 30:8-9)

Consider, again, retirement. How will you respond in such a time of peace? Will you pursue God or gardening? Will you seek God’s kingdom or travel? Will you seek only rest, or will you be re-energised and redirected for ministry? Wayne Mack is a wonderful example in this regard. When he retired from his ministry in the United States he moved to South Africa in order to be used of God to strengthen the churches in our country. He could easily have decided that he had served God for long enough and that it was now time to rest, but he chose instead to see his time of peace as further opportunity for ministry.

When you reach retirement, will you continue to disciple and mentor others? It is a shame that so many believers grow aloof as they grow older.

Christ-Centred Peace

The peace in Jerusalem was also a Christ-centred peace. The text records two aspects to this.

The Comfort of the Holy Spirit

First, they were walking “in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” This refers to the churches as experiencing the aid of the Holy Spirit as promised by the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an amazing statement, which indicates that a large number—perhaps the majority—of the believers in the churches in these regions were experiencing what we might characterise as a revival. Believers were experiencing assurance and practical sanctification as they experienced the love of God shed abroad in their hearts.

Now, again, it is often (usually, in fact) the case that such revivals come in the midst of difficulties. It is when we feel mired that we seek the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit. But apparently these believers did not know the rules! They kept in step with the Spirit when all was well. They saw the rest they had been given as an opportunity to grow in Christ. We should do the same.

For example, in our safe worship environment, do we pray and pursue revival, or are we content with what we have? Do we use the peace to pursue a more intimate knowledge of Christ or are we content with the knowledge we have?

Consider the example of Jonah, who was quite content to minister within the safety of Israel, but less content to move out to Nineveh at the command of the Lord. The Laodicean church experienced evident rest, but did not use it well. Instead, they were rebuked by the Lord for being lukewarm (Luke 3:14-21).

As another example, are we content with the logical assurance that we have of our salvation or do we pursue the Spirit’s witness in this?

Multiplied

The second aspect of their Christ-centred peace is the fact that the churches “multiplied.” We saw this earlier too in 6:1, 7 and 12:24. Simply put, these churches saw conversions and therefore grew numerically. Robertson said of this verse, “The multiplication of the disciples kept pace with the peace, the edification.”3

There is the ever-present danger of the us-four-and-no-more mentality when a church experiences relative peace and people and property. We should use the blessings to pursue further blessings. We must not be content that we and our families are saved. We must look for opportunities to be fruitful and multiply. Evangelise others. Make use of gospel tracts and other evangelistic tools. Invite friends and family to church. Again, use the rest of your retirement for the glory of God by aiming at the growth of the church. Use your job security and position as a means to reach your fellow-workers.

We need to guard out hearts when all is well. It is worth repeating that it has so often been the case throughout history when things are going well—at least externally—the church tends to grow lukewarm (see Revelation 3:14-22).

Let me bring this to a close with a challenge: Run well and finish well. Saul would become known as Paul, and he would both run finish well. I am not sure that the churches in these regions did the same. But will you?

Paul said that, whether full or hungry, he was content. The reason was simply because his goal never changed: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11). The “resurrection” speaks of rest, while the suffering speaks of, well, sufferings! But regardless, he would seek the edification of the church. He would walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and he would be used of God for the multiplication of the churches.

It would seem that the solution to all of this is a matter of treasure. That is, where is our treasure? Whom or what do we treasure? When we are satisfied with and in Christ then, as the songwriter said, the things of this world will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

A Gospel driven life is the solution. And what was true of Saul is to be true of us. May God enable us to spiritually prosper in spite of peace.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 18.2:393.
  2. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 18.2393-94.
  3. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:129.